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Traveling cooking class embraces origins of food

AS more travelers show an interest in local cuisines, an American chef is taking the trend a bit further with a cooking school that travels to the food's origins.

The Braise Culinary School holds classes on farms and in forests during warm months. Most classes start with a farm tour ?or recently, a walk in the woods ?so students can see how food grows before they learn to prepare it.

"The idea, basically, is to reconnect people to their food,?Milwaukee chef and owner David Swanson said.

He came up with the idea while working on a business plan for a restaurant and attached cooking school.

"One question that I would think that would come up is: 'Where is this food coming from??Swanson said. From there, it was a short jump to offering classes ?sometimes literally ?in the field.

Swanson, 39, worked in restaurants in the Chicago area and Milwaukee for about 20 years before opening the cooking school in 2006. Since then, he has cooked in apple orchards, wheat fields and breweries. This year's first class began with a mushroom hunt in woods near the University of Wisconsin-Washington County.

Swanson partnered on the class with Britt Bunyard, a mycologist (fungus expert) and editor of Fungi magazine. Bunyard led about two dozen people through woods and clearings he had scouted the day before.

"There's no need to run from spot to spot,?Bunyard said. Dozens of morels were waiting to be picked.

Gail Groenwoldt, 39, of Milwaukee, signed up for the hunt after seeing morels priced at nearly US$50 a pound in her grocery store. During the hunt, she also spotted ramps. A side order of the onion-like plant cost her more than US$20 in a Milwaukee restaurant.

"This is why we'd learn to forage,?Groenwoldt said.

After the hunt, Swanson sauteed morels, ramps, asparagus and potatoes and then added veal stock to make a vegetable ragout. The cooking lesson, Groenwoldt said, was "a treat.?

Community feel

Sara Wong, 33, also from Milwaukee, has taken Indian, sushi and Thai cooking classes. On a trip to Vietnam, she ate dog.

"I'll try just about anything,?Wong said. She learned about Swanson's unique school at a community supported agriculture (CSA) fair. "I like unique experiences in food, so I thought this would be fun.?

Many of Swanson's classes are taught on CSA farms. The farmers sell shares of their crop in the spring, often for US$500 or US$600, and then deliver boxes of produce weekly during the growing season.

Typically, about a third of Swanson's students are CSA members eager to learn how to prepare the food they're receiving. Others are foodies, and some just want a new experience.

He varies the menu to reflect the season and the farms?specialties. A previous class at Pinehold Gardens, just outside Milwaukee, featured garlic, greens and fingerling potatoes.

This year's class will be in August and focus on heirloom tomatoes.

"The idea is to get more people to cook,?Swanson said, "and if they make the connection to the farmer, some of the best meals I've had are simple meals.


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